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U.S. v. Coggins

filed: March 1, 1993.


On Appeal From the District Court of the Virgin Islands. D.C. Criminal Action No. 91-00029

Before: Becker, Cowen and Roth, Circuit Judges.

Author: Roth


ROTH, Circuit Judge :

On April 24, 1992, Patrick Coggins was sentenced to 121 months imprisonment for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute and for attempted possession of a controlled substance on board an aircraft. Coggins was arrested at the St. Croix airport after fleeing from a DEA agent who had briefly detained Coggins and his four travelling companions for questioning. The trial court denied Coggins' motion to suppress evidence of the crack cocaine that he abandoned while in flight from the DEA agent, and a jury found him guilty of both charges. Coggins appeals his conviction on the grounds that the DEA agent's investigative detention was an unlawful seizure and that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress.

While we disagree with the district court's holding that there was no seizure, we will affirm the district court's finding that Agent Inouye had "reasonable suspicion," or sufficient evidence to support an investigative detention of Coggins. Thus, we will affirm his conviction.


On March 26, 1991, Patrick Coggins and three other males boarded a small commercial plane for the brief flight from St. Thomas to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Also on board that flight was Agent Mark Inouye of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), travelling on business, who recognized one of the four men as being involved in drug trafficking. Agent Inouye noted that the four men were wearing shorts and T-shirts and wore their hair in dread locks. Sergeant James Miller of the Virgin Islands Police Department met Inouye when he arrived at the St. Croix airport at 3:30 p.m. Miller recognized another of the four men as a known drug dealer. While Inouye and Miller were watching them, the four men rented a car and sped off. Inouye and Miller questioned the car rental agent and learned that the car was due to be returned in just two and one half hours. They decided to intercept the suspects on their return and to question them.

The foursome returned at about 6:00 p.m. and asked an unidentified man at the airport about the departure time of the Pan Am flight to St. Thomas. The men then drove off again. At roughly 8:30 that night, the car returned with five men in it. As the men sat together in a stairwell at the airport waiting for their flight, Inouye approached them, identified himself as a DEA agent, and asked to see their identification and plane tickets. Agent Inouye was still accompanied by Sergeant Miller of the Virgin Islands Police, who was also in plainclothes. Coggins indicated he had no identification and that the fifth man, Edward Emmanuel, held all their plane tickets. Agent Inouye examined the airline tickets that Emmanuel was holding, noticed that they were all issued with the last name of "Smith" and paid for in cash, and began to question Emmanuel.

While Agent Inouye was questioning Emmanuel, Coggins stood up and stated that he needed to go the bathroom. Inouye told him to wait, and Coggins sat back down. Shortly after that, Coggins again stood up and, appearing very agitated, said he had to go to the bathroom immediately. Inouye insisted that Coggins had to sit down and wait until Inouye was through with the interview. Coggins then walked off, breaking into a run. Inouye yelled at Coggins to stop and chased him outside the airport. While running, Coggins pulled several small plastic bags from his pockets and threw them into the bushes outside the airport. Inouye caught up with Coggins and arrested him after a scuffle. Sergeant Miller retrieved the plastic bags. Later police investigation revealed that the bags contained crack cocaine.


The jurisdiction of the district court rested on V.I. Code tit. 4, § 32 (1990). This Court's jurisdiction rests on 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The central issue of this appeal is whether Coggins was unlawfully seized by Agent Inouye. If Coggins was unlawfully seized, the district court should have suppressed the evidence of the crack cocaine that Coggins discarded while fleeing with Inouye in hot pursuit. Under the "fruit of the poisonous tree" doctrine first enunciated in Wong Sun v. United States, 371 U.S. 471, 9 L. Ed. 2d 441, 83 S. Ct. 407 (1963), evidence gathered as a result of an unlawful search or seizure must be suppressed at trial. As both parties concede, when the abandonment of property is precipitated by an unlawful seizure, that property also must be excluded. See, e.g., Fletcher v. Wainwright, 399 F.2d 62, 64 (5th Cir. 1968).

Appellant argues that Coggins was seized at the point during Agent Inouye's questioning when Coggins requested to leave, was told not to, and initially obeyed. The Supreme Court has held that a seizure occurs "when the officer, by means of physical force or show of authority, has in some way restrained the liberty of a citizen . . ." Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 19, 20 L. Ed. 2d 889, 88 S. Ct. 1868 n.16 (1968). More recently, the Court has held that "a person has been 'seized' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave . . . ." United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554, 64 L. Ed. 2d 497, 100 S. Ct. 1870 (1980) (opinion of Stewart, J.) (footnote omitted); accord INS v. Delgado, 466 U.S. 210, 215, 80 L. Ed. 2d 247, 104 S. Ct. 1758 (1984) (adopting Mendenhall test).

The Supreme Court has ruled that a reasonable person under circumstances of a somewhat similar airport investigatory stop would not believe he was free to leave while being questioned by a police officer who had possession of that person's identification and airplane tickets. In Florida v. Royer, 460 U.S. 491, 75 L. Ed. 2d 229, 103 S. Ct. 1319 (1983), the Court considered whether a suspected drug courier was seized during questioning ...

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